Darwin's Nightmare

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/20/06 19:35:24

"Not much of a fish story, but people make for better interviews anyway."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The blurb on the calendar played up the ecological angle: A foreign species introduced into a new environment destroys the native fauna, sending the ecology into a tailspin. Though some time is spent on how a small population of Nile perch quickly came to dominate Lake Victoria, biodiversity is not actually the focus of the film. Instead, "Darwin's Nightmare" focuses on how the perch dominates the area's economy just as totally as it does the lake, and how despite being able to export an abundant, renewable resource, the region remains impoverished.

Why? Globalization, apparently. Russian planes arrive, fill their holds up with Tanzanian fish fillets, and fly them to Europe. The fish are so plentiful that the fishing boats and processing centers are only somewhat profitable by paying the workers almost nothing (it's not like potential employees are in short supply). So the locals subsist on fried fish heads while their bounty flies overseas, with malnutrition and disease constant problems.

The film does not offer solutions, or even necessarily causes. Globalization is my inference as to the cause of this community's woes, because we are shown that the area's entire economy is built around fishing, with pointed references made to how the airplanes arrive empty and return so stuffed with fish that they occasionally crash on takeoff, and if the people running the processing plants are getting rich, they're not doing so ostentatiously enough for us to be shown. (Granted, Tanzanians screwing over Tanzanians may not be the image filmmaker Hubert Sauper wants to get across) And it's the metaphor we're clearly meant to infer from the title: As the Nile perch destroyed Lake Victoria's indigenous species and took over, so have richer nations destroyed the local economy.

It's a bleak situation, and there's no indications that things can improve. As desperate things are, though, raising the price of the fish would just cause the European buyers to go somewhere else, and then where would these people be? The economy is bad, but stable internally, and though the film occasionally hints that the planes might not be empty on the way down, but may in fact contain guns, we don't see any evidence of that; if a revolution is in the offing, it's not happening near this community.

We see homeless kids in the streets, and women working as prostitutes because that's all there is for them. Conditions in a local market are appalling. HIV is common enough to just be called "the virus", and the only local charitable organization (a Catholic Church mission) won't even discuss condoms because, hey, you're not supposed to be having sex outside of wedlock anyway. Life becomes pretty cheap; people we meet at the start of the movie are dead by the end. On at least one occasion we're shown the body in an alley, and it is more disquieting than similar shots in fictional movies or documentaries where the dead are relatively anonymous. Even in documentaries about very bad situations, we tend to think that these people are with the filmmakers, and the camera provides something of a safe zone. That's not the case here.

This movie was made with a skeleton crew; Sauper is credited as writer, director, producer, and camera operator. It's got a very handmade feel to it: The lighting is often less than one might like, sometimes the camera has to move awkwardly to get a reaction shot, or it will be set up too far away from its subject to really get a good look at him or her with the grainy film stock being used. The film doesn't look bad, and maybe gains a little credibility by not looking feature-perfect. At times it seems to flail a little, as if it wants to be a call to action but isn't sure who to rally against; other times it seems like Sauper wasn't sure how to combine the story of the widespread poverty with the story of the perch taking over the lake.

For each fault, though, the film does have a virtue. It avoids talking-head syndrome, even if much of the film is interview footage. While the editing doesn't really create a story, it does create good characterization; it's part of why seeing people dead later is jolting. Sauper's also got the knack of keeping the camera focused on someone just long enough to make them a little uncomfortable, so that information starts spilling out. He's also good at using subtitles to give the audience supplemental information - he uses this a lot, but it seldom seems like we're reading the movie.

When I get down to it, my only real disappointment in the movie is that it makes me sad, rather than angry. As horrible as what we see is, it never really hits the audience where they live.

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